With teachers in short supply throughout Illinois and across the United States, the responsibility of confronting that challenge is often left to school districts.
Elgin U-46 has found an answer in the NIU College of Education.
Serving nearly 40,000 students in 11 communities across 90 square miles within the northwest suburbs, the state’s second-largest district has partnered with the college to boost its number of teachers endorsed to teach Special Education.
“As a large school system, we certainly want to be able to have the best teachers we can to provide the best services and learning environments for our students, so we decided to kind of change our approach,” says U-46 Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Suzanne Johnson.
“Instead of recruiting teachers with the necessary credentials, we decide that we already have some great teachers in U-46 with great experience,” she adds. “If we could utilize those skills and standards that they’ve met, to enhance and support learning for all kids, it would be a great win.”
U-46 is using funds from an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grant, a percentage of which are meant for professional development of teachers who would directly support the special education population.
Two dozen Elgin teachers are in the current cohort, coming from different schools throughout the district to receive preparation from the NIU Department of Special and Early Education without needing to travel to DeKalb.
“We provide the site; NIU provides the instruction, some face-to-face, some blended,” Johnson says. “We’ve had a lot of good feedback. The first cohort will wrap up at the end of this spring, and we’re looking to start another as it’s been so effective. There are positions waiting for these teachers as they complete their credentialing.”
Johnson, who was named Kane County’s “Administrator of the Year” in 2017, oversees Teaching and Learning, School Instruction and Equity and Support Programs.
U-46 is “pleased and excited” with its growing collaboration with NIU, she says.
The “great relationship” includes participation in every year of the NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction’s Social Justice Summer Camp as well as previous professional development programs in ESL/Bilingual Education.
NIU’s willingness to travel to Elgin – a major convenience for teachers – is only one benefit of the current cohort.
“Being able to work with a university that is research-based is really important to us as a large, diverse school district. It really focuses on best practices, grounded in research, that builds the capacity of our teachers,” Johnson says.
For the teachers, “this is an opportunity to grow professionally and personally.”
NIU’s Special Education program promotes methods in teaching all students and including students into schools and the community. It is approved by the Illinois State Board of Education, and field experiences and coursework adhere to policies, standards and frameworks of the Council for Exceptional Children.
“The content is certainly relevant. What they are studying is applicable to their everyday responsibilities with students, and this provides them with great opportunities, maybe to move into different instructional positions, maybe into administrative positions,” Johnson says.
“Financially, for our teachers, the cost is just fees and/or textbooks, rentals or online subscriptions – and they still benefit through our salary structure as well,” she adds. “Certainly, they feel valued. They identify that for the school district to make that investment in them personally and professionally gives them great pride and satisfaction. It sends a message that we invest in our teachers and want to continue to support their growth.”
U-46, meanwhile, is building a “pool of candidates for some positions that are difficult to recruit.”
“It’s very difficult for teachers coming out of school to have all of these credentials that require additional semesters,” she says. “This gives us an opportunity to recognize the experts that we already have and to give them opportunities.”
Johnson urges other school districts to pursue teacher shortage solutions with the NIU College of Education.
“Reach out to NIU to brainstorm – to share, ‘This is what we’re looking at. This is what we want to do. How can we partner, or begin to plan a partnership?’ NIU is very willing to problem-solve and make things happen,” she says. “I highly encourage everyone to reach out to NIU to have these conversations.”
Want to learn how professional development cohorts can work for you?
NIU designs its programs to be flexible in how, when and where coursework is delivered. Likewise, teachers can work full time in their current jobs while completing their coursework and maintaining their personal lives.
For more information on School District Contract Cohort Development with the NIU College of Education Office of External and Global Programs, contact Kay Caster, assistant director, at (815) 753-3005 or firstname.lastname@example.org.